Fiji: where democracy is turned on its head

By Tova Andrea Wang

 

The island of Fiji, which many of us think of as a paradise vacation destination, has become a major locus of practices that run contrary to international legal principles of democracy.

Fiji’s military government, which came to power following a coup in 2006, has now issued one of the most restrictive political registration decrees in the world (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

The latest example of this is the recent decree, issued unilaterally by Fiji’s military government (in power since 2006 through a coup d’etat), regarding the registration and conduct of political parties.

It is now extremely difficult for existing parties to move forward and indeed the government this week has essentially abolished 14 of Fiji’s 17 political parties in one sweep.

This outcome by all appearances was by design.

The government’s decree included requirements for the registration of a party that are highly unusual and restrictive compared to other countries around the world.

Under international norms of democracy, states should not make requirements to form a political association unnecessarily burdensome.

Yet under this decree, within 28 days parties had to obtain the signatures and voter identification card numbers of 5,000 citizens divided among four different regions of the country and pay a fee of over 5,000 US dollars.  This is a forty-fold increase from 128 signatures.

Given that Fiji has as a population of about 870,000, the resources it would have taken to meet these demands was practically prohibitive for most opposition groups and out of proportion to the population.

Just checking the veracity of the signatures would have been nearly impossible given that parties are not allowed access to the voters list.

Failure to meet this deadline led to the most draconian action that can be taken against a party under international standards: complete deregistration.

It is widely accepted in electoral frameworks worldwide that such an action should only be taken under the extreme circumstances of serious offence.

This transgression is only compounded by the fact that the state seizes the assets of the deregistered party, in a system in which parties are not publicly funded but survive through private contributions.

 

Prohibition

Most striking and extraordinary is the prohibition on who can be in a party.

It is not uncommon for countries to bar government employees and members of the military from certain forms of political participation.

The decree follows suit.  But it goes much further than that, barring citizens with no connection to the government from holding office in, being a member of, or even speaking in favour of a party.

More specifically, the decree prohibits anyone who holds any office in a trade union or a federation, congress, council or affiliation of trade unions or organisation of employers from, essentially, being engaged in party politics in any form whatsoever.

This is unheard of.  Under international democratic norms, party membership and political engagement is encouraged, not quashed.

The rationale behind some countries excluding public employees and military from political participation is to maintain the image of neutrality on the part of the government and the armed services in election outcomes.

There is an arguable public interest at stake.

What could possibly be the public purpose served by excluding citizens who participate in trade union activity?  There is none that could be justified in a truly democratic society.

Indeed the prohibition on trade unionists participation in political life seems not to have been an arbitrary decision.

It appears to be aimed at diminishing the labour movement as a political force for workers’ rights and to ensure that some of the most effective advocates in the country would be blocked from opposing the present regime through the very basic democratic process of contested elections.

It seems an unlikely coincidence that the decree was issued just days after the Fiji Trades Union Conference announced it was planning to form a new political party.

The interest in having robust political parties with a plurality of views is essential to a healthy democracy, as has been recognized in human rights instruments going back decades.

They are a major vehicle through which the people can have their voices heard, including in opposition.

This concept has been turned on its head in Fiji.

 

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